Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Authors Urge Rejection of Google Book Search Deal

A coalition of authors and publishers -- including best-sellers Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and technical author Bruce Schneier -- is urging a federal judge to reject the proposed settlement in a lawsuit over Google Book Search, arguing that the sweeping agreement to digitize millions of books ignores critical privacy rights for readers and writers.

The group of more than two dozen authors and publishers, represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the Samuelson Law, Technology, and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law (Samuelson clinic), filed an objection to the settlement today. The coalition is concerned that Google's collection of personal identifying information about users who browse, read, and make purchases online at Google Book Search will chill their readership.

"Google Book Search and other digital book projects will redefine the way people read and research," said Lethem, winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award. "Now is the moment to make sure that Google Book Search is as private as the world of physical books. If future readers know that they are leaving a digital trail for others to follow, they may shy away from important intellectual journeys."

The settlement, currently pending approval from a New York federal district court, would end the legal challenges brought by the Authors' Guild over the Google Book Search project. It would give Google the green light to scan and digitize millions of books and allow users to search for and read those books online. However, Google's system could monitor what books users search for, how much of the books they read, and how long they spend on various pages. Google could then combine information about readers' habits and interests with additional information it collects from other Google services, creating a massive "digital dossier" that would be vulnerable to fishing expeditions by law enforcement or civil litigants.

"I believe that the fear of tracking will create a chilling effect on my readers and reduce my readership, and therefore my revenue, from these books," said Schneier, a computer security expert. "Moreover, I write these books in order to participate in the public debate on security issues. Reduced readership negatively impacts my expressive interests as an author."

In the objection filed today, the coalition asks the court to require Google to create a robust privacy policy that gives readers as much privacy in online books as they have in a library or a bookstore and to ensure that the policy is enforceable and overseen by the court on an ongoing basis. The authors and publishers present a list of privacy protections that would improve the settlement, including limiting tracking of users by requiring a court order or judge-approved warrant before disclosure of the information collected, ensuring user control of personal information stored by Google, and making the system transparent to readers. After much pressure from EFF, ACLU, the Samuelson clinic, and others, Google finally issued a privacy policy for Google Books on September 3, 2009. However, that policy doesn't guarantee that Google will require court approval before disclosing reader information, and it doesn't sufficiently limit Google's retention of that information. It is also changeable by Google at any time.

A hearing on the fairness of the proposed Google Book Search settlement is set for October 7, 2009, in New York.

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